A Partial List of Great Poems Since 1900

As Compiled by Timothy-Green.org Readers, Slightly Edited By Me; Listed Alphabetically, Linked When Available, Sequences Excerpted; Leave a Comment to Suggest Your Own.

Comment to suggest more, and I’ll add them to the list.  If you have text of any of the poems I couldn’t find online, email it to me, and I will post it — all great poems should be online somewhere!

More on Greatness: Art vs. Art History

dolphinWhy is Citizen Kane always listed as the greatest movie of all-time?  Is it the most memorable, the most moving?  The most adored?  Nope — if that were the criteria, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and It’s a Wonderful Life would top it easily, along with at least 100 others.  It’s not the most layered or the most worthy of critique, either — David Lynch runs circles around Orson Welles in terms of complexity, and I’ve never seen him on a top 100 list.

When critics call Citizen Kane the greatest movie of all time, what they really mean is that it was the most innovative.  It was Citizen Kane that introduced the montage, the spinning newspaper, deep focus cinematography, compressed time, disparate sound — tools other directors have been using ever since.  It doesn’t matter whether or not watching Citizen Kane is actually enjoyable today; it’s always going to be worth watching because it’s historically important.

In college I took an introductory film class at a time I was still a biology major.  The textbook was subtitled “A Guide to the Greatest Films in History,” but it was quickly clear that we weren’t really talking about film history, but rather, film evolution.  Every Monday night there was a screening, and for every movie we were told to watch some novel technique — the jump-cut, the sound bridge, the collage, the panorama.  The Graduate became a movie about the use of popular music in film.  Hitchcock’s Rope became the anatomy of a real-time film broken into 10-minute long takes.  The discussion was never about why the films were good; it was only about what aspects of the film were new.

Biologists are interested in the diversity of life, but evolutionary biologists are interested in the origins of anatomy.  The bottlenose dolphin is perfectly adapted to its life in the coastal sea, but evolutionary biologists are far more interested in the first toothed whales to use echolocation.  Bottlenose dolphins can differentiate between distant objects that differ by less than 10% in surface area.  Is it accurate to call early carnivorous whales, who could faintly detect a cluster of hard-shelled nautolids in the dark, “greater” than the bottlenosed dolphin, whose sonar is so fine-tuned?  Worse than inaccurate, a statement like that doesn’t even make ontological sense.  The word “great” is too ill-defined.  Early whales are more historically interesting.  Modern dolphins are more highly evolved.

When some people say art is “great” they mean historically important.  When most people say art is “great” (myself included) they mean that it’s evocative, transformative, memorable, moving, etc. — at some particular time, for some particular audience (usually “right now” and “me”).

This seems like a very simple distiction, right?  Almost too obvious to mention. But it’s a distinction that the vast majority of academics — and this is the problem with academia — seem incapable of making.  The other day a friend of mine asked me what I think about this article by J.D. Smith from American Arts Quarterly, and this statement in particular:

Artists have been expected to épater la bourgeoisie for over a century, but continuing a revolutionary struggle starts to look foolish when everyone alive has been born long after the fall of the ancien régime. Surveying twentieth-century poetry, for instance, Timothy Steele has argued that decades of vers libre bards are still reacting to the late Victorian era’s soporific iambic pentameter and metronomic approach to recitation, dragons long since slain by the likes of Eliot and Pound. Apparently, the former avant-garde, like many other triumphant revolutionaries, would rather fight than govern. Remaining in a defensive stance, they have failed to establish a tradition that admits of development and amplification. Instead, there is a narrowing and reduction—a working out of ever-narrower formal questions. Thus the “progression” from the Cubists to Mondrian to late Rothko.

If you can fight through the jargon, he’s just saying that poets since Eliot and Pound have been beating a dead horse.  We’re like those soldiers still fighting in Polynesia weeks after V-J Day.  The Romantic poets surrendered long ago, but free verse keeps on carpet-bombing.

The author is citing Timothy Steele, so I should probably read what he has to say before moving on — but this is a blog post, not an essay, and to me this argument seems fairly absurd.  The revolution of free verse was a simple one: poets realized that you don’t have to be metrical to be musical.  When you start using internal rhyme, variable feet, and visual space on the page, there’s so much more room to play.  It might have taken centuries to exhaust the possibilities of repetition in verse, but by 1900 we all but had, and the Imagists and Objectivists decided to move on.

Just because we’re still writing in free verse doesn’t mean we’re still fighting that war.  Eliot and Pound (and probably more importantly W.C.W. and H.D.) cleared that land for us, they slashed and burned the forest of iambic feet — and now we’re free to cultivate the fields, free to grow our prize-winning tomatoes and feed a nation of readers.  And that’s what poets have been doing.  Compare Mary Oliver to Anne Carson to Susan Howe.  They’re each using free verse in remarkably different ways, and aren’t reacting to meter in the least.  Meter isn’t dead, but poets have moved on, to the point where meter is just one of many tools at our disposal.  What else does Smith expect?  He complains that we’d “rather fight than govern,” but it seems to me that there’s been plenty of governing going on.

The problem is, art critics are evolutionary biologists — they’re obsessed with change, with charting innovations in anatomy, and so that’s all they see.  But readers are plain biologists; we focus on the beauty and efficacy and abundance of life.  We want to be inspired, transformed, transfixed.

And I think that’s why there’s this divide between the academic interpretation of poetry, and the kind of poetry people actually enjoy.  The former defines greatness as innovation — to take a poetry class in college is to basically study an evolutionary timeline.  No one has to enjoy a poem or film or work of art to acknowledge that it demonstrates a significant advancement.  But historical importance is not the same thing as importance.  There’s more to art than art history.

There's No Such Thing as a Great Poem

This blog has been full of discussion lately, and I love it — it gives me things to think about (and thus post about).  In a comment thread from last week, “G the Art Spy” argued that we publish too much poetry these days — that a journal that published infrequently and was “extremely choosy” would be most successful.   I replied that there’s no such thing as great poetry — only good poetry, and it’s hard to get people to agree even on that.  A hyperbolic statement, and the ever-engaging Cafais called me out: “Really? The great ones are rare, but they are still out there.”

Cafais is right, of course, but I do believe it’s practically true that there’s no such thing as great poetry, at least from the standpoint of a literary magazine.  Great poems exist, but they’re so rare that it’s most effective to operate under the premise that they don’t.

Like “God,” great poems are defined by consensus.  A great poem is any poem that a vast majority of poetry readers would acknowledge to be great.  I can only think of a handful written in the last 100 years.  “Howl” and “Prufrock” certainly — probably “The Wasteland,” too, although I know several people who seem to despise it.  Plath’s “Daddy.”  Levine’s “They Feed They Lion.”  Maybe Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man.”  Maybe something by Cummings, but I can’t decide which one.  The most recent I can think of are Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song” and (I would argue) Matthea Harvey’s “The Future of Terror / Terror of the Future” sequence.

It’s interesting to explore what these poems have in common — an epic harnessing of the contemporary zeitgeist, etc. — but that’s not the point.  The point is: look how few and far between.

As an editor, you can’t pretend that you’ll be able to publish one of these poems — you’d be publishing one poem every decade…and how would you find that one poem, if you’re not receiving any submissions or being active in the literary community?

While there are very few great poems, there are a great many good poems — poems with a strong voice and a resonant energy, that will connect with some in particular and, for them, rise to the level of greatness.  And that’s what you have to focus on.  Every issue of Rattle contains maybe a dozen poems that move me personally — the rest are poems that I think might move other readers, the goal being that no matter who reads, everyone will be able to find their dozen.  Poetry is subjective; that’s all you can hope for.

In the 15 years of Rattle, we’ve published one poem that I think has a strong case for being called great.  Donald Mace Williams’ “Wolfe” is a flawless epic, and in turning the legend of Beowulf into a critique of man’s encroachment on nature, it has a chance at ringing the bell of the current zeitgeist.  That’s why we took the unusual step of reprinting it as a chapbook.  Does it have the power to move enough people to call it great?  The odds are long, but only time will tell.

We’ve also published several poems that border on greatness.  Li-Young Lee’s “Seven Happy Endings.”  Lynn Shapiro’s “Sloan-Kettering.”  Sophia Rivkin’s “Conspiracy.”  Salah al Hamdani’ “Baghdad, Mon Amour.”  And there are others.  But I don’t think any of them have the  universality to be called truly great — they’re great for some readers, but merely good for others.  We all have different histories and proclivities.  And that‘s what’s really great.

What I want to do, though, is ask you:  What poems do you think are great?  List as many as you can think of, and maybe we’ll make a big list.  I’d love to find some that I haven’t read yet.

A New Kind of Book Review

The first book was written 5,000 years ago, and the first book review 4,999 years, 11 months, and 28 days.  There’s been quite the hubbub ever since, particularly when it comes to reviews of poetry.  Should we waste space writing negative reviews, when so many brilliant collections languish in the shadows?  But if they’re always positive, don’t they become as uninteresting and distrusted as blurbs?  Does critical opinion even matter?  Is any publicity good publicity?  And so on.  Here are some recent rounds of the brouhaha: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.  (Hey, one of those is me!)  There are plenty more where that came from — if you read any of those articles, there will be links to other articles, with links to other articles, and so on.

Most of us fondle the elephant in the room, but for some reason we stop short of naming it.  Maybe (to borrow Marlon Carey) the elephant is just so evident that addressing it can’t be revelant.  Or maybe there are just too many careers at stake.  Either way, no one seems willing to confront how fundamentally subjective art really is, or how successful art — and I mean art that has the power to transform people — is an unharnessable snowball of luck and skill and temperament and vision and time and timing.  I’ve been to the contemporary art museum.  I’ve seen Frank Stella and Blue Square #2.  Doodles my kid could draw — and I don’t even have a kid!  It’s not, as Vonnegut muses, that there are detailed frescoes buried beneath three gallons from a Sherwin Williams color swatch.  Mark Rothko couldn’t have painted the Sistine Chapel.  And yet people are moved by post-minimalism and abstract expressionism — at least enough people to fill a room if you hang a painting there.

I’ve never read art criticism in my life, but I can tell you how Red Rectangle with Yellow Stripe works.  Stripped of all referents, all sense of time and place, the viewer is forced to enter the painting — is forced to daydream, not in the direction the artist commands, but anywhere the mind desires.  With all the claptrap of meaning removed, we see art finally for what it fundamentally is:  a mental mirror.  Art is the place we go to lose ourselves in the oneness of creation, and the best way lose yourself and touch the infinite is to dive deeper within (I don’t want to get off on a tangent, so just trust me on that).  Hence the subjective nature of art.

Every reader carries their own baggage on that journey, because there’s no one there to carry it for you — it’s an entirely private experience.  Through the dual miracles of nature and nurture, we all have a hell of a lot in common, but no two people share the same history or identity or logophilia.  We have moods that can change in minutes.  All of that effects the way we encounter books (or any works of art).  And everyone knows it.

Over on the Harriet blog, Thomas Brady posited that the public’s lack of interest in poetry is due to a failure to sustain consensus of opinion: “if no façade of objective stability exist over and above that subjectivity, and the public senses no objective control, public interest is sure to wane—eventually destroying contemporary poetry’s legitimacy.”  I would argue the opposite:  If anything turns the public off of poetry, it’s the pretense of objectivity — it’s the professor in your ear telling you that Edna St. Vincent Millay is great, when you can read for yourself and see that she does nothing for you.  In the baseball metaphor we were using, you don’t need a box score to tell you that Babe Ruth just hit a home run — you’re at the game, you can use your own eyes.  And the disconnect appears when that voice in your ear doesn’t match what you’re seeing on the page.  That’s why so many people who don’t read it say “I just don’t get poetry” — they’ve been taught that poetry is something to be gotten, instead of what it really is: something to be experienced.

Critics like to pretend that an official scorer is necessary, when we’d be better off at the other end of the press box — the TV booth, where there’s as much color commentary as there is analysis.  The game is right in front of us and we can score it ourselves; we just want the experience enhanced.  Tell me where to look, not what to think.

So three days before the quincimillenial anniversary of the first book review, I’d like to propose a new kind of book review (and maybe it’s not even new for all I know).  Let’s stop pretending these are objective critiques and start writing personal narratives — don’t tell me whether or not a book is good, tell me about your experience with the book.  Tell me why you picked it up in the first place — did you know the poet, were you drawn to the cover, the title, what was it?  Where did you read it?  How long did it take?  Were you transported immediately or did you daydream?  Which poems resonated with you and why?  The speaker in the poem reminded you of your sister?  Your experience of Brazil was different?  You’re growing tired of poems about divorce?  Why?

Not only would reviews like this be more interesting to read, but they’d be more honest, more true to the real experience of reading poetry.  Because every time you respond to a book, that response has just as much to do with you as it does to the author.  Let’s finally face it.

This is an idea we’ve been kicking around since publishing Cameron Conaway’s review of Clifton’s Voices.  Conaway starts and ends the review with an anecdote about having dinner with Clifton when she visited his college — it was a strange way to write a review, and at first we were skeptical, but the more we thought about it, the more we liked it.  And I think you can go a lot farther than Conaway did.

So we’ve decided to add this note on style to our guidelines.  Getting poets to follow guidelines — or often even to read them — is like herding cats, and we have dozens of traditional reviews scheduled to be published over the next few months.  But I’d like to gradually phase in this new style — the personal narrative review.  We have hundreds of books available for review, and we’d be happy to send you a few.  Anyone willing to write yourself into the script?

A Bunch of Hypercrits

hitsgraphThe graph on the right is “unique visitors” to Rattle.com. I had to crop out the y-axis, but you get the drift. On Saturday morning we went from our usual 1,000 or so visitors a day (is that good or bad for a website? I have no idea) to 20,000, thanks to the snowball effect of online networking. A couple people recommended the poem at StumbleUpon, and “Death and Tacos” by Nathaniel Whittemore went viral.

I love it when that happens, as it did last summer with Brett Myhren’s “Telemarketer.” The only difference is, that poem was posted before I turned Rattle.com into a blog, so there was no comment feature. The tens of thousands of people who read the poem simply read it and moved on.  This time around, a small fraction (0.1%?) are tossing in their two cents.

Reading through the comments, it occurred to me that poetry is facing another epidemic not many people are talking about.  If WaLS is the Bird Flu, this is the common cold; a less debilitating disease, but extremely pervasive.  Or maybe it’s Herpes.  Out of 17 comments, about half describe what they like about the poem, while the other half bicker about line edits. It sounds like an undergraduate creative writing workshop: “I think the poem would be stronger if you cut line 22.”  “I trip over the syntax.”  “Show don’t tell!”

Part of me feels sorry for Nathaniel Whittemore, despite his sudden popularity — his isn’t the only poem that’s being critiqued at Rattle.com right now.  The rush of readers would have you think otherwise, but looking back at previous comments as a whole, across all the post, the trend becomes obvious — a large portion of the comments are always critiques.

And that word “critique” is very specific.  I think it’s one thing to express a negative reaction to a piece of writing — and those comments are wonderful, as far as I’m concerned — but it’s another thing entirely to pick at a poem and try to offer “constructive criticism.”  Who, in this setting, is received advice?  This is a poetry magazine, not a classroom.  The author is god-knows-where, not on the other side of a laminate table.

What compels us to do this?  It doesn’t happen with fiction or other arts.  No one reads a short story in The New Yorker and says, “The story was alright, but it would have been stronger if you cut the penultimate paragraph.”  No one looks at a painting by Mark Vallen and says the woman’s shirt should be red instead of blue.  Maybe you say that stories in The New Yorker are too straightforward and neapolitan, or maybe you say you prefer abstract art to realism.  But you never micromanage the artist.  So why does poetry produce so many backseat drivers?

Here’s my guess:  Poetry isn’t popular.  We encounter fiction and visual art everywhere we go.   It’s half of every bookstore; it’s hung on every wall.  Maybe the frame cost more than the print you bought in bulk at Target, but it’s there.   Poetry isn’t ubiquitous.  Even when we’re with friends who read poetry, we don’t talk about it much.

There’s only one setting in which we’re used to having a discourse about poetry:  the poetry workshop.  That’s the only social venue we have — whether the workshop is at a coffee house, in a college class, or online — and I think most readers of poetry have encountered a workshop at some point in their lives, for two reasons.  1) There’s nowhere in our society that poetry is pushed on people except those settings, and 2) the fact is, most poetry fans are poets themselves.

So I think we get used to speaking about poetry in the scripted way, talking about line breaks and imagery and so on, and have never really learned how to talk about it any other way.  Call it another symptom of academization, but we’re nothing but a bunch of hypercrits — I’m guilty of it myself much of the time.

And we lose something because of it.  The point of poetry isn’t the critique, it’s the poem itself.  It’s the spontaneous emotional and intellectual reaction to language.  To pick a poem apart is to muffle that reaction.  That’s not to say every poem is moving or interesting, of course, or that there is a proper objective reaction to any poem at all.  If you don’t like what you just read, that’s perfectly fine — say “yuck” and move on.  Just react.  There’s no need to dissect it, unless we’re actually in a workshop. Otherwise, what are we gaining from the critique?

Or to quote Edith Wharton, “If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could probably have a pretty good time.”